When an interviewer says, “Tell me about yourself,” what do they really want to know? – Matt K.

Most candidates hate this question. Rightfully so. It’s open-ended. You have no idea if they’re asking about the professional you or the personal you, and you’re not sure what they want to know. Here are some pointers to help you navigate your job interview!

So, let’s start with the beginning. While it’s nice that you grew up on a farm, were always a hard worker, loved horses and thought of becoming a vet until you decided to join the circus, no one really cares. You’ve got about 2 minutes to answer this question (and I’m being generous here).

Start with a bold statement.

Such as how you knew that the career you’re in was your passion, or an overview statement like “I have over 10 years of experience as a client relations manager and have worked in both creative settings as well as financial institutions.” Now here’s the trick! You only say the last part if they’re looking for someone who has worked in both environments. Otherwise, who cares. If you’d like your opening statement to be more personal, it could go something like this… “Even though I was in clown school, I was the one who was the most tech savvy and was always asked to create the PowerPoint presentations, and that’s where my passion for being a presentation specialist started.”

Now you’re off and running, but where are you running to? Well, to where you are now, sitting in front of an interviewer, hoping you’ll make it to the next round, naturally! You’ll want to take the interviewer through the progression of your career and end with where you are now and what it is you’re looking for, which is ALWAYS the job they have open.

Easy right? Well, of course not. The pitfalls of answering this question are many, and include going into all the details of what you did day in and day out at each position, outlining all the projects you worked on and rambling with no direction. It will seem like you’re not in control of the answer, and it will feel that way to you as well.

You need to remember you’re telling a STORY here, the story of you and your career.

You want to highlight what skills you gained at each position, what you learned and got out of each position and then why it seemed like a good idea to take the next job that you only kept for a year. In the storytelling of your career, the way you handle transitions is very important. No jump cuts allowed! You’ve got to fade in and out. The interviewer needs to understand the logic behind the move. So you must explain that, for example, while working at Disney was a wonderful experience that gave you a tremendous foundation for a career in producing, when a recruiter or friend of a friend suggested you interview for a job at a smaller company with less pay, you jumped at the chance because it was going to give you a broader scope of responsibility that you’d never get at a larger organization. And of course, you saw the drop in salary as an investment in yourself for learning these skills hands on. See what I did there? Spin.

Yes, you will be your own spin doctor.

For example, I had a Brand Manager who managed top brands at two major global companies and then took a job with a small dental company that wanted to launch a product direct to consumers that was previously only available to the industry. On paper, it was a step down, and as he was well aware, when you’re a Brand Manager looking for a job, the BRANDS on your resume matter. So, we had to make this look like a wise choice on his part. What did he gain by going there? Well, he launched a product and a brand that had never been in the consumer market place before! That experience is not easy to come by, and that experience coupled with his previous experiences with well-known companies makes him stand out. But he will stand out ONLY if he spins it the right way.

I will also add here that in the telling of your career story, it’s ok to inject humor and show your personality. In fact you should, within reason of course! You should also show excitement about your work and the jobs you’ve had. If you’re not excited about it, why would they want to hire you? This doesn’t mean Tom Cruise-jumping-on-Oprah’s-couch excitement; it just means you must show enthusiasm when talking about why your positions were good experiences for you, what you were excited to learn when you decided to accept the job, etc.

And then of course, there’s the end. Where you are now and what it is you’re looking for. This can be a difficult thing to tackle especially if you’ve been laid off from your last place of employment.

If you have been laid off, be up front.

If you’re part of a larger layoff, say you were part of an X% reduction in staff. Something like, “I learned a tremendous amount at XYZ Company. It was a great experience for me, and I’m sorry it’s over, but I’m also really excited about the possibility of coming to work for a larger company,” (OR) “bringing what I know to a startup and getting back in the trenches.” It’s all spin, but that also doesn’t mean that it can’t be true!

If you are still employed and looking, you can say that while you’ve learned a tremendous amount where you are, you’re ready for the challenge of an executive role that your current company can’t offer you and look forward to hearing more about their position. Or you may want to shift your responsibilities since your current job exposed you to one area that you don’t usually handle and you’re really interested in working solely in that area moving forward. Whatever it is and however you spin it, at the end of your career story, you want the interviewer to understand exactly why you are sitting across their desk.